"It reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience." - Maya Deren
In my research, I am yet to find a concrete description about what takes place in Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s surrealist classic Meshes of the Afternoon. At a little over 13 minutes long, the film is one of the most famous examples of American avant-garde, experimental filmmaking. The, then, husband and wife dynamic directorial duo was primarily interested in making a film in the style of the European surrealists from the 20s. As crucified as I may be for writing this, they managed to surpass their influences with one of the most thought provoking short films I have ever seen.
Saying that any surrealist film is better than An Andalusian Dog may be bold, but the fundamental difference is the thought being provoked by the story. Dali and Buñuel were not interested in a secular narrative. And though that may be the bare bones of surrealism, it passes through a person’s attention span at a much more rapid pace. Watching the pure-experimental-avant-surreal is all about remembering that nothing has meaning. Or at least that is how Dali looked at it. Audiences are prone to be desperate for meaning. That is the concept being played with…
But Meshes of the Afternoon seems to have some kind of substance behind it. In fact, Deren has been quoted as saying that the film is not meant to be completely surreal, there is a theme, but the audience has to find it. Could that be a copout? Yeah, it could be. But I was personally swept away in the film’s circular narrative. The best I can do is tell you what physically happens on the screen followed by my personal interpretation of the action. Remember, this is a personal movie experience that may not be the same as how you reacted to the film. The fact that so many different narratives have been suggested for a 13 minute short film only furthers my belief that there is meaning hiding in there somewhere.
On the surface we see a woman, played by the freaking gorgeous Deren, walking into her house amongst a variety of heavily, symbolically emphasized items including a flower on a long driveway, a key falling, a door unlocked and a knife. Almost immediately after opening her door, she stretches out on a chair and falls asleep. In her dream the audience is reintroduced to the symbolism as the key and knife interchangeably transform into each other. Deren, in a repetitive allusion, can be seen placing the key in and removing it from her mouth.
At this point in Meshes there is no real way of attaching the pieces to make sense. She is asleep, dreaming and obviously disjointed. Then a man in a long black cloak arrives and is pursued by Deren. The man is shadowed and has a mirror as a face. He is then seen putting the knife under a pillow on the right side (the female side) of the bed. When she cannot injure or identify the man, Deren takes the knife and kills the dreaming version of herself. This is the in-and-out of fantasy and reality that makes the film surreal. After the death of her dream-self, a man (Hammid) appears and lifts the now alive her out of the chair before walking upstairs. Thinking that he is the Grim Reaper-esque man, she tried to shatter his mirror. Shortly after this, the same man walks in to find Deren to be, in reality, dead.
That is what you will see if you venture over to Youtube.com and watch Meshes. But what does it mean? I am willing to take a shot at it – I hope you are willing to go with me…
She walks into her house and falls asleep. Her dreams consist of illusions as she swiftly glides through her home. She is light, careless and relaxed. This is until she sees the cloaked man. Obviously meant to represent death, the man has a mirror for a face. When Deren, who attempted desperately to see his face, looks into the eyes of the “Reaper” she sees her own reflection. She IS death. The cloaked man puts the knife under a pillow on the stereotypically female side of a couple’s bed. To me, this screams lover’s quarrel. As she begins to reappear in her own unconscious you can almost feel the pressure of the situation pressing down over her head. When her boyfriend or husband walks into the apartment, he heads straight to the bed. She tries to hurt him, but the screen switches to shattered glass. Or, a broken mirror. If she is death, and she killed death, she is now dead. And her willingness to kill herself was brought on by Hammid’s character. She then, for lack of a better word, physically kills herself by sticking the symbolic knife into her own chest. She has killed herself over a man, and the film is primarily her visions as she drifts into the afterlife…..maybe?
Gosh, in written form that all seems so complicated.
Even if I am way off, it is interpretation that makes Meshes of the Afternoon such an interesting film. There is a chance that nothing significant is actually happening at all, but the meshing between dream and reality have never been thinned more by a movie. Deren and Hammid made a 13 minute film that people have been dissecting for almost 70 years. So little action may never again inspire so much thought in an audience. No matter how you feel about the movie - that is a pretty awesome thing to think about…
Meshes of the Afternoon: A